When Charles Hughes retired as the Football Association director of coaching 20 years ago, he was one of the most divisive characters in the English game, often vilified for implementing a national approach to tactics and coaching that was deemed brutalist by his critics.

A grammar school boy, Hughes had joined the FA in January 1964 as assistant to the director of coaching, Allen Wade. Hughes had developed a passion for coaching while studying for a degree in physical education at Loughborough University. After graduating and completing his national service in the RAF, Hughes taught in Bolton, then at Leigh Grammar School and at weekends attended FA coaching courses.

On those courses, Hughes met Norman Creek, a mild-mannered Cambridge graduate then managing the English Amateur XI and the Great Britain Olympic side. At Easter 1963, Creek mentioned he planned to retire and suggested Hughes apply for his job, which included working with Wade. After an interview process that featured a weekend with the Olympic team, Hughes emerged triumphant. Thrust into the sclerotic and arcane corridors of the FA, Hughes found an organisation constrained by the outdated ideals of its amateur founders and struggling to marry the needs of the professional game with the grassroots.

Today, amateur football is remote from the professional game but in the early 1960s an amateur still had some of the social cachet of the Victorian gentlemen who had founded the FA a century earlier. In 1960, Lord Wolfenden, in his Sport and Community report, had advocated abolishing the distinction between amateurs and professionals. Wolfenden, who in 1957 had also recommended decriminalising homosexuality, suggested that everyone should simply be a player. He was ignored by the FA.

The FA was led at the time by Harold Warris Thompson, a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, and staunch defender of the ailing amateur credo, which in England survived in the Northern and Isthmian Leagues. This was where Hughes would, in his new managerial capacity, go looking for players, but shamateurism — the practice of amateur clubs secretly paying players — was rife. Thomson’s pet side Pegasus, the Oxbridge team that won the 1951 and 1953 Amateur Cups in thrilling style, were struggling to compete against those making illicit payments. Led by Thompson, the FA hunted down shamateurs in uncompromising fashion, often levelling harsh penalties that could leave players unable to play. 

“The FA were evil with money,” recalled John Delaney, the centre-half for England’s amateurs and the GB side under Hughes. “All the old farts would be getting pissed and we’d get nothing. I worked as a chairmaker and didn’t get any time off. I spent four days away [for an Olympic qualifier] and all I got was the price of a bus fare back from Heathrow.”

To Norman Creek, the idea that any of his supposedly amateur players secretly took money was ludicrous. Hughes was less gullible but still had to find a way to succeed in this outdated Victorian limbo.

Creek had played for the famous Corinthians side of the 1920s, during which time he won a full England cap. Creek also steered Great Britain through the 1960 Olympic qualifiers to the finals in Rome. Hughes was only in his early thirties and had no track record on or off the pitch. He needed a different style to establish control; his players would find a manager that brooked no compromise.

The Skelmersdale striker Peter Hardcastle played for England’s amateurs and GB. “I was a bit uppity as you are at that age and was set up by the other players to argue back with Charles Hughes,” he said. “He had this way of cutting you dead and when I approached him, he said, ‘Who’s behind you Peter?’ and when I looked round the entire squad had backed off 10 yards. After that it was all, ‘Yes Charles, no Charles.’ He didn’t have that much choice as he wasn’t that much older than some players.”

During Norman Creek’s playing days in the 1920s, the Home Nations quit Fifa after rows over broken-time payments and did not return until after the Second World War. Hughes would soon discover that this return to the global fold had fudged rather than resolved the FA’s fixation over payments to amateurs.

With a larger pool of players than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, success for Hughes was easier to come by in the amateur Home Nations championship than outside the United Kingdom, where the targets were the Uefa Amateur Cup or Olympic qualification with GB. To succeed, Hughes needed a different, more pragmatic approach both on and off the pitch. Maurice Lindsay played in the 1960 Olympic finals and later under Hughes for England and GB. He said, “Charles expected us to be more professional in our attitude to the game. I was very lucky that my job [as a teacher] enabled this to be possible. Others were not so fortunate and suffered as a result.”

Committees held sway over international selection. Hughes paid lip service to this anachronism but the starting XI was his. He also asked for more time with his squad in the build up to games and focused on tactics. “Before [Hughes] no tactics were even talked about [in the amateur game],” said Jimmy Quail, a Northern Irishman who played for the north London amateurs Hendon and Hughes’s GB side.

In a precursor to his later roles, Hughes quickly found himself in a position to influence a whole stratum of English football, but his immediate challenge lay with the qualifiers for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Under Creek, GB thrashed Iceland 10-0 on aggregate in the first round. Hughes took charge for the second round against Greece, at which point he discovered just how uneven a battle he would face against Europe’s supposed amateurs. Great Britain beat Greece 2-1 at Stamford Bridge but in Athens found very different opposition. The Greek amateurs that had been in London were replaced by professionals. GB were crushed 4-1. The Greeks were later ejected but GB stayed out, the FA’s gentlemen unwilling to return in such un-Corinthian fashion.

Further ignominy followed. In 1967, Uefa set up an international amateur championship in a vain attempt to bolster the rapidly discredited ideal. Grouped with Austria and the Netherlands, Hughes’s English amateurs failed to recover from a 3-0 pasting in Salzburg and missed out on the four-team finals. To the FA’s chagrin, Scotland not only qualified but beat Spain in the semi-finals before narrowly losing in the final to an Austrian side inspired by Josef Hickersberger.

For the 1968 Olympic qualifiers, Hughes called up three of those Scots, Millar Hay, Niall Hopper and Billy Neil, but his dogmatic quest for a more professional approach combined with an abrasive manner found little favour in Scotland. The FA allowed English players in the GB squad to miss club fixtures, giving Hughes the extra preparation time he craved. Hughes wanted Queen’s Park — Scotland’s leading amateur club and the main source of players north of the border — to release the three Scots early too. This meant missing a league fixture with Arbroath. Queen’s Park refused. So did the Scottish FA, which threatened life bans for any players journeying south early.

Due to this impasse and injuries, Hughes’ GB squad travelled to Augsburg in Germany with just 13 players. Apart from the back-up keeper John Shippey, the only spare player was the injured Barking striker Peter Deadman. At Hughes’ behest, Deadman changed into his strip and sat on the bench to dupe the Germans into thinking that Hughes had some options.

Germany also had a different approach to amateurism and tolerated some payments. GB’s team of Isthmian League players were at an obvious disadvantage against opponents, including those of the calibre of Rainer Zobel, who later won three European Cups with Bayern Munich. The Germans had others with Bundesliga experience, such as Helmut Bergfelder and Paul Alger of FC Köln and Günter Keifler of Eintracht Frankfurt. Great Britain could never have outplayed Germany and Hughes directed a physical style that outraged their hosts. “If we fought with such roughness as that in the Bundesliga, then I’d hang up my football boots,” Keifler reflected after GB won 2-0.

The victory was an unexpected fillip for the FA, who were especially keen that GB qualified as the 1968 Olympics were in Mexico. Two years later, England would defend the World Cup there. If GB qualified, the England manager Alf Ramsey could measure this first experience of British footballers playing at high altitude. It was not to be: Great Britain beat the Germans 2-1 on aggregate, but lost 1-0 on aggregate to Spain in the final qualifier.

That 1967 victory over Germany was arguably Hughes’s finest managerial achievement. Like most managers in charge of teams weakened by circumstances beyond their control, the pragmatic Hughes knew that one-off victories were the most realistic ambition outside the UK. Against technically superior opponents, a physical approach was essential. “We were limited being amateurs,” said Delaney, “and [Charles] knew that was the only way we could get at teams.”

A second Uefa Amateur Cup in 1970 proved even more humiliating than the first as England lost all four qualifiers to Spain and France. Hughes had a final attempt at qualifying for the Olympics, but a vain quest to reach the 1972 Munich games exemplified the terminally flawed concept of amateurism in football. With the exception of Bill Currie of Albion Rovers, a squad of Englishmen from the Northern and Isthmian Leagues faced Bulgaria, who had qualified for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. There was no professionalism in Communist Bulgaria, where players were given state jobs and then devoted most of their time to football.

“I was marking a guy who was a major but I doubt he’d ever been in a barracks in his entire life,” said the GB striker Roddy Haider. Nine of the Bulgarian side to face GB in the first leg at an almost empty Wembley had been in Mexico. Incredibly, Hughes prompted GB to a 1-0 victory. In Sofia, Hughes found that though his English amateurs were tough, the Bulgarians were tougher. GB were thrashed 5-0.

Under Hughes, England’s amateurs had a final attempt at the Uefa Amateur Championship in 1974. In the qualifiers, Germany were beaten 1-0 at Wembley but England missed the finals on goal difference. That same year, Harold Thompson abolished the discredited amateur distinction. With that decision went Hughes’s only managerial roles at the FA. England had no amateurs so could not field a side and the GB team — always spearheaded by the FA — drifted into memory before being revived as a one-off in 2012. Hughes never did emulate Norman Creek in qualifying for the Olympics, but his England XI won 48 of 77 internationals, losing just 12 times. 

Hughes focused on coaching. When Wade retired in 1983, he took over. In the malleable territory of the amateur game, Hughes’ hard-nosed approach to tactics had quickly gained purchase. Talented midfielders like Maurice Lindsay — widely regarded as one of the finest players to shun the professional game — were left watching balls sail over their heads, or found themselves in a crumpled heap after overly physical challenges. Now in the top job, Hughes was in a position to expand his mandate beyond the extinct world of the amateurs and across the whole English game.

Hughes’s mantra gained great sway as his books rolled off the presses in their thousands. His most successful work was The Winning Formula, which extols the virtues of direct play. In the introduction, Hughes claims that 85% of goals are scored from moves of five consecutive passes or fewer. A quarter of goals in his study involved no passes at all, being scored directly from set plays, defensive rebounds or interceptions; a suitably pragmatic theory when facing stronger opponents, but surely not for every game, for all conditions or for every level from children to professionals?

In his introduction to The Winning Formula, Hughes claimed that his results came from three years of analysing Cup finals and international matches started after he joined the FA in 1964. This was later challenged by Charles Reep, an ex-RAF wing commander, who was intrigued by what he called “match performance analysis”. During the 1950s — a period when Hughes was becoming fascinated with coaching — Reep had been expounding his theories, including the idea that most goals came from moves of three or fewer passes, in the now defunct magazine Match Analysis

Reep later claimed that the now all-powerful Hughes had exploited his ideas, but Hughes shrugged off the accusations. In 1990, Hughes wrote, “World soccer has been moving in the wrong strategic direction for the better part of 30 years.” 

The beginning of that wrong turn was taken just as Hughes was about to join the FA. But four years after that typically dogmatic assertion, Hughes was gone, although his books continued to be published. He retired to north Wales, where he watches Premier League football — a competition he voted to bring in. Hughes is rarely seen in public, although he did venture south in 2008 for the funeral of Wade, who had been critical of his successor. 

He also gave a rare interview for GB United?, my book on the history of the Olympic team. Defending his managerial tactics, Hughes said, “The philosophy players had when I started [managing] was to win at home and draw away. I couldn’t see the sense in that. Surely you should try to win them all? You enjoy it more when you win. We always went out to win the game.

“I always said we should support the player with the ball and if he can’t pass it forward, be in a position to receive the ball back. But the players should always look forward. If we had good wingers, we would play with wingers; if we didn’t we wouldn’t use wingers. Players should also play the ball in before they get to the by-line. If you wait until you get to the by-line, the defenders will all be back. It’s also important to win the ball in the final third of the field.

“In my era, most defences had four defenders and one in midfield that was a good ball winner. In the GB team [and the England team] that was John Payne. We knew his limitations and said once you’ve won the ball, look to someone close by to pass it to. There’s other players that can’t do crunching tackles and I would tell them you don’t need to do that, leave the space so that John could do that.”

Of the criticism he has received, Hughes said, “It’s grossly unfair. We played some long balls but not all the time. You must not allow the media to distract you from what you know or believe to be right. I wrote 31 books and made three films and if there’s something in those [books and films] that people don’t agree with, come and see me and we’ll talk about it. But they never came to see me because they never read those books or saw those films. Very few people would find it easy to write 31 books and make three films just on long-ball play.”

Those books and films influenced many people in their time, but the former Crewe Alexandra manager Dario Gradi, who played under Hughes in the 1960s while an amateur at Sutton, maintained that the ideas in these coaching manuals were taken too far. “His aides took it too literally; that wasn’t what Charles was about,” said Gradi. “He taught me the art of preparation to defend. With amateur teams then, that was really important as most of your opponents were better, and he left the attacking to two-touch football.”

Brought up in a time of austerity, Hughes valued the importance of employment. Roddy Haider, England’s most capped amateur with 65 caps, said, “Most of my goals were scored from four or five touches. What [Charles] said was that to keep managers in a job was to play effective, winning football.”

For all the players who recall Hughes the martinet, there are plenty of others with different memories. Players traveling down from Scotland or northern England were often put up at his home in Buckinghamshire and shown great hospitality. Peter Hardcastle turned professional after the Bulgaria tie and played in the Football League with Blackpool, Plymouth Argyle and Bradford City: he described Hughes as the “best coach I’ve ever had.” John Delaney said Hughes was as “one of the best men I knew.”

After the bust-up with the SFA was settled in 1967, Millar Hay played for GB in the second round matches against Spain. “What Charlie was trying to do, even with the ruckus we had then, is just what we’ve got now and not playing before the game,” said Hay. “It definitely wasn’t an amateur set-up and that’s why I went back. Charlie was a difficult man. I only argued with him once, he took no dissent, but when I went down he put me up and he and his wife were great.”

Like anyone changing positions, Hughes took his accumulated knowledge with him when he became director of coaching. But his practical experiences of tactics as a manager were formed at a time when football was in great flux. Routinely faced with technically superior opponents, Hughes did all he could to win, embracing a more physical, direct approach that eschewed comfort on the ball. Hamstrung by the gap between tradition and commerce, his pool of players was restricted by people seemingly with different aims. Hughes’s employers at the FA wanted to play up, to play the game; he wanted victory regardless of how that was achieved.